What is Learning Leadership?

Learning Leadership was designed to act as a system of student support in which students become academic mentors who interact with other less experienced students to enhance student engagement with learning and teaching.   It was originally developed by the authors, Professor Kay Sambell and Linda Graham, as part of their work on developing student engagement during the funding period of Northumbria’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) in Assessment for Learning (Sambell et al, 2012). During this time Linda Graham worked as the CETL’s Student Development Officer. She had responsibility for recruiting the first cohort of students to become involved with Learning Leadership, and for working directly with them. She delivered their training and ran other aspects of the scheme throughout its introduction in a range of different disciplinary contexts across the university.

This guide offers a very brief introduction to the authors’ model of Learning Leadership and the ways in which we originally established it in a variety of programme areas.

Philosophy: promoting students’ awareness of learnership

The value that peer mentors can bring to enhance the first year experience is well-established (Farrell et al, 2004; Boud et al, 2001) and large-scale schemes have been developed in many universities.1 As we originally conceived it, the overall goal of the Learning Leadership scheme was to enable trained academic peer mentors to promote active, independent learning at university (Barkley, 2009) helping first-years to recognise and adjust to what, in practice, are often experienced by students as radical differences between appropriate approaches to study in school or college and effective approaches to learning in higher education (Foster et al,2011).  This is important, because research (e.g. Colley, 2012) has shown that newcomers’ doubts about whether to stay on a course often link to their inability to adjust to the different ways they are expected to learn at university. Peer-assisted learning schemes offer one approach to developing student academic engagement (Bryson & Hardy, 2012) and counteracting alienation (Mann,2001).

The scheme sought, above all, to heighten participating students’ appreciation of well-established, evidence-informed principles and concepts about student learning and raise their awareness of the (often tacit) rules of engagement (Haggis, 2006) which underpin what we have called learnership (the role or state of being a learner) at university level and in a particular discipline or subject area.

The Quality Assurance Agency (2012: 2) argues that a key characteristic of UK higher education is the emphasis that is placed on the responsibility of students   for their own learning. While the university is responsible for creating a range of learning opportunities and resources, the effectiveness with which those learning opportunities are actually used is a matter for students themselves. In other words, higher education is typically conceived as a partnership between students (who actively engage in a variety of learning   activities) and staff (who provide various learning opportunities and resources).

This means, of course, that staff and students alike are jointly responsible for the co-production of transformative learning which enables individuals to acquire and develop knowledge, skills, values and dispositions which will serve them not just during their time at university, but also for their futures as graduates (Barrie, 2006; Boud and Associates, 2010). Students’ capacity to pinpoint and articulate their graduate qualities and dispositions- which include the capacity for self-regulation and active, independent learning- is often regarded as an important dimension of employability (Knight & Yorke, 2003) and learning for the longer term (Boud, 2006). For many first-years, however, this involves a major shift in the student’s conception of learning (Kember, 2001) and a radical shift in learning relationships.

The scheme sought to combine a focus on illuminating for students the underpinning principles of learnership with the major principles of well-established student support schemes in the UK and USA (for example, PAL, PASS and SI) which are widely acknowledged as effective ways of improving student engagement with learning and teaching. According to a recent substantial review by Trowler and Trowler (2010) ‘student engagement’ is a term that is often used in the literature to talk, fundamentally, about the student’s investment of time, effort and interest in their learning. Key features that are positively linked to this include social and community- based features such as environments which foster active learning methods, dialogue, interaction, collaboration amongst students and an acknowledgment of diverse learning strategies (Zhao& Kuh, 2007). Further, it is now widely acknowledged that enabling students to be active members of a learning community depends on interactions between staff and students, and student interactions with other students.

The idea behind Learning Leadership was that student mentors, who are successfully progressing through a particular course, are probably uniquely placed to act as ‘intermediaries’ between the expert (lecturer) community and   the   first   year ‘novices’ who are relatively new to the (often tacit) ways of thinking and practising (Meyer & Land,2005) of the   disciplinary   culture they are coming to know, because they have recent first-hand experience of making the transition to academic study themselves. On university courses the overall aim is, typically, for students to learn to see, think and become able to act like, say, an engineer, lawyer, or an historian, rather than simply possess subject knowledge. This means that Learning Leadership, like most similar peer assisted schemes, is best situated in a disciplinary context.

What was the role of a Learning Leader?

Typically, first-year students were supported by second-year Learning Leaders who received specific training which enabled them to undertake the role. The training itself, and its part in the overall process we developed, is described in more detail in the partner guide: Putting Learning Leadership Into Practice. Once trained, the Learning Leaders, all of whom were volunteers, met with small groups of first-year students. Learning Leadership sessions were characterised by cooperative and collaborative learning involving discussion and interaction. Learning Leaders facilitated debate and, above all, shared their own experiences of specific learning opportunities and activities on their course. They did not teach.

When and where did Learning Leadership take place?

Learning Leadership was supplemental to scheduled teaching. Generally speaking Learning Leaders, working in small groups, developed and offered their first-year groups three Learning Leadership sessions at key points throughout an academic year. We designed the training to help groups of Learning Leaders to identify key topics/issues that they felt were commonly experienced as particular challenges by first- year students. They were then supported, during the training event, to design and deliver their bespoke sessions to help discuss these challenges and share the ways in which their own approaches had developed, allowing first years to ‘read ahead’ and imagine new possible identities as university students.

Learning Leaders typically met with their first-year groups during induction events and/or in timetabled slots that were cleared by the relevant course teaching team. Learning Leadership sessions worked best if they took place in a small seminar rooms where two or more Learning Leaders facilitated discussion activities with between ten to twenty first-year students.

What exactly happened in a Learning Leader session?

The sessions were bespoke meetings which were designed by the Learning Leaders themselves to address the specific challenges that students often encounter when getting to grips with learning in ‘new’ ways in the context of the particular discipline. The Learning Leaders normally designed their sessions around their own experiences of being a first-year on the course.

Generally speaking in each session the Learning Leaders met their first years for about an hour to:

  • Discuss fruitful approaches to lectures, placements or other key learning opportunities on a course
  • Share insights into the relevance of the first-year topics being covered
  • Review course materials and‘difficult’ core concepts
  • Share their own experiences of effective and ineffective approaches to learning (e.g. reading to get to grips with core concepts; developing a sense of the ‘big picture’ on a module or programme area; unpacking assignment titles; making the most of feedback).

Further, the agenda for a session was often informed by first-years according to their views of the challenges they were facing. The sessions offered a chance for first- years to discuss their views of a subject, share any difficulties and ask questions within a supportive, informal environment. The primary aim of a Learning Leadership session was not to learn course content but to better appreciate effective ways of going about learning in the discipline.

Were Learning Leaders teaching the first years?

In Learning Leadership sessions students were not teaching the first year students and the training made this abundantly clear. Learning Leaders did not prepare information to deliver, nor was it their role to explicitly working on specific assignments with first-year students.

Instead Learning Leaders were trained to act as facilitators who created

  • Non-threatening informal environments
  • Equal status and opportunities to contribute
  • Wide ranging dialogue between all participants
  • Active exploration, sharing information, discussing responses
  • Negotiated topics for discussion

What was the role of the lecturers?

In all cases when we established Learning Leadership in a subject area staff were initially consulted to identify what they felt were common issues and challenges that first-years often face with course material. They usually suggested topic areas which, from their experience, would be useful to consider and address in the Learning Leadership sessions. This was often useful, helping the Learning Leaders, in discussions with the Student Development Officer, to tie their sessions in with course demands. Thus, while no staff were present at the Learning Leaders’ sessions, examples of topics suggested by course teaching teams were frequently considered and foregrounded. These, commonly, coincided closely with students’ views of important topic areas to discuss. They included, for instance:

  • Helping first-years to see the point of preparing for seminars and reading widely
  • Helping first-years to make the most of their professional placements
  • Improving induction week events by involving Learning Leaders directly in the design and delivery of activities to heighten first-years’ sense of the academic relevance of social activities
  • Helping first- years to develop academic report writing
  • Helping first-years to develop appropriate presentation content

In addition, specific academics from the relevant subject area became champions of the scheme, shadowing the Student Development Officer during the key stages of its introduction andgoing along to the student mentor- training. This meant that, when the time came to hand-over the scheme entirely to the programme area, the academics responsible for sustaining Learning Leadership were familiar with its philosophy, principles and approach.

Good Practice in Learning Leadership sessions

In an ideal Learning Leadership session there was ample opportunity for lively discussion and sharing of experiences between the two year-groups, leading to a deeper appreciation of effective approaches to course subject matter. The Learning Leaders did not directly explain their understanding of course material but, instead, learned to redirect questions to the wider group to prompt dialogue and encourage the first-years to construct knowledge for themselves, rather than passively receive information.

Examples of Learning Leadership schemes that  we initiated included large scale programmes such as Exempting Law, Pre-Registration Nursing and Physiotherapy.

This guide has offered a broad overview of the underpinning philosophy of Learning Leadership and the key principles we based our model upon, together with a few examples of the diverse ways in which we originally introduced it into a range of subject areas. At this point the Student Development Officer took prime responsibility for the development of each scheme and adopted an extremely proactive role in the delivery of the events associated with the scheme. For instance, she worked directly with students to train all the volunteer Learning Leaders, and she ran sessions which prepared the first-years to make the most of the opportunity. The operational aspects of her approach can be read in detail in the partner guide, Putting Learning Leadership Into Practice, which also outlines the ways in which the scheme, importantly, became tailored to the immediate context of each subject-area by an iterative process of partnership working involving staff and students.

As stated earlier, in the interests of embedding and sustainability, however, subsequent iterations of Learning Leadership necessarily became the prime responsibility of academic champions in the relevant subject area. These, largely, were academics who, having shadowed the Student Development Officer through the initial launch of the scheme, were extremely familiar with the scheme itself, but who also, importantly, appreciate the nuances and academic challenges of the disciplinary area in each case.


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